Vanbrugh Castle School

Notes on Vanbrugh Castle

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Notes on Vanbrugh Castle

A tour of Vanbrugh Castle written by a former teacher M.V.Morton in 1976.

A plan has been attached to help follow the narrative.

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Sir John Vanbrugh was born in London in Jan.1664. Before his first birthday the Plague began its work. Soon afterwards the Vanbrugh family wisely moved to Chester. Here they prospered as suger refiners, John, it is thought, was educated at the Grammar School. When he was nineteen he went to France, where he admired the new architecture, was detained in the Bastille and started to write plays. After a brief career as a soldier, Vanbrugh busied himself with plans, for building Castle Howard - a magnificent start to his architectural career. The building of Blenhein Palace, however, was a frustrating experience due to Sarah, the domineering Duchess Of Marlborough. She ordered the demolition of the ancient Woodstock Manor (also known as Rosamund's Bower) a building which delighted Vanbrugh and possibly influenced his design of Vanbrugh Castle. John Vanbrugh's fourth career was in Heraldry as a King at Arms. He was knighted himself in 1714. Some twelve years before this he joined Wren and Hawksmoor in the work on Greenwich Hospital. In 1717 Sir Jchn leased a part of the Westcombe Estate, where he built several houses of which the Castle is the sole survivor. Sir John died suddenly at Goose Pie House, Whitehall in 1726, leaving a widow and one son Charles, aged five.

The original Castle was built in 1717 and consisted of a round tower flanked by two square towers, with a half-round tower on the north side. There were surrounding walls, an impressive gateway, a tall wellhead and numerous outbuildings. Most of these have disappeared, except for sections of the walls and part of the old stables - a crenellated tower and blocked arches, plainly visible to the South of the castle, but much changed. This tower contains a Vanbrugh window and its top can be seen in Stukeley's 1721 drawing. Entering the Castle by the main door we find a small hall (1) with fascinating recesses, and passages, leading from it that arouse curiosity. To the left (W) are three arches (2) filled with glass and panels. These were possibly open in Vanbrugh's day drawing visitors into the more intimate room beyond - but this could be just imagination on my part!
The ceiling in the passage which leads to the arches is worth examining. The vaulting has a rather Norman look (memories of Rosamund's Bower?).

On the floor above (3) there is similar vaulting in three separate sections, and directly beneath in the cellars the vaulting is there, though now obscured by central heating pipes etc. Thus we have three "decks" of three sections each. The top floor ceiling is plain.

Let us go up to the roof - taking care to avoid the lintels of the two low doors that lead to it! There is a fine view far across London. The Royal Naval College is there still - a monument to quality against a background of lanky flats.On the roof itself there are some Vanbrugh chimneys (two round and one square, and little rooms at the top of each tower which must have been more accessible in former times. The round tower is capped by a copper cone which supports a weather vane shaped like a duck. About 1907 this replaced an earlier vane.

On the East there is a handsome chimney which looks as though a bell should hang there: indeed it stretches down to the ground from where it looks like a bell-tower.

The top floor is Sir John's work. The Western room (4) commands a splendid view of the Park and has an alcove in the form of a small square room in the W.tower. The next room (5) looks North and has a semi-circular bay of windows. East of this room there used to be a third room (6) - now converted into two bathrooms and a passage. At the end is a door leading rather awkwardly onto the backstairs (7). This end is part of Vanbrush's 1719 extension. The general level is higher and the three top rooms (8) are small with low ceilings and windows to the North.

On the first floor, the room (9) on the West (at present a bathroom) has an alcove in the square tower (now a w/c), and it matches in outline the room above it.
The small room (10) with three outside walls on the North is post-Vanbrugh - indeed it is surely late 18th century. Its windows look to the West, but there are bricked up windows to the North and East. The next room (11) includes the half round tower on the North side. It also has an alcove to the South (vaulted ceiling}, unlike its counterpart above. The view to the West is restricted by the 18th century addition.

Moving Eastwards (12) into the central room (once the East end of the Castle) we pass through a constrictsd entrance; which has one section of vaulted ceiling (the other section is in the passage outside). After many years' residence in it I have a special affection for this room. There are arched recesses and a square alcove in the East tower large enough for a desk. This alcove contains a door (13) to the East - in fact, this room is really a sort of thoroughfare from East to West.
There is one other door (14) at the top of three steps which leads to the next room, part of the 1719 extension. The floor is on a higher level. The doorway may have, been a recess originally - but whether Vanbrugh pierced the walls or it was done more recently to comply with fire regulations I do not know; anyhow, the steps themselves are practical and recent. This next room (15) is large and has a rectangular bay to the North. It had a large fireplace which is now enclosedc The small room South of this with an arched window is part of the 1719 work. The next room (16), at the moment a school bathroom is part of a later addition.

The next rooms to the South (17) are much lighter than the Vanbrugh rooms on this floor, because they have windows on the East and the West. The East windows are all rectangular, and the Western ones are (N. to S.) single arch flanked by two small rectangular frames, then a pair of arches followed by the same pattern repeated once. The first of these windows is the only one in the smaller room from which one can see the old Observatory. The last windows in this room include two that have been unbricked within the last ten years (1 write in 1976). These two are the directly East windows, the other two facing North and South respectively. This room, and the small w/c (18) on the W. entered by four steps up are 19th century.

The extreme S. Room (19) is entered by a rectangular door, and is 20th century. The fire door at the end is modern. It is a large room - at the moment sleeping a dozen boys without overcrowding. This room could become a marvellous studio, literary centre or even lend itself to games like billiards, table tennis and the like.
Returning to the ground floor (where we examined the hall and passage before our sudden flight to the roof),

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let us go West (20) into one of the original 1717 rooms (now a school washroom). It matches the room above it in shape. The window in the alcove (West tower) and the outside doorway are probably the original design, but the other window is fairly recent.

The other original room (21) is on the North and is now reached by a doorway off the Hall. It contains a tiled fireplace with an old fire basket This room is the one that might have been entered by any of the three archways on its South side, to the north, is the now familiar half round window. This room matches its counterpart on the top floor in shape. It is rather dark in there these days since, the trees outside have been allowed to grow to their full height, and the extension to the West takes much of its light, and restricts the views from its windows.

To the West (22) is a late 18th (or early 19th) century addition with an extension in the form of a bay to the North. This is now a beautiful room (the School Library) with Dutch tiles in the fireplace surround, and plenty of windows.

Before Alexander Duckham became the last private owner of the Castle there was another room W. of the library: it towered over the sunken garden. This room was demolished about 1907 and it seems was no great loss. It is replaced by a pleasant terrace (23) with a wide outlook.

North of it, and down five steps is a peculiar circular enclosure now overlapped by the arc of the Library bay, and pierced to make access down four steps to the garden on the North.

A word about minor changes - a plan dated 1906 (there is a copy in the Local History library) shows a bewildering number of doors connecting all these rooms and the Hall. I am rather more concerned with the Castle as it is, and so ignore such details in this short guide.

The NE room (24), part of Vanbrugh's own extension, is large with a generous bay to the North, as in the room above. At the W. end there is a door leading back to the Hall.

Across the passage, with its garden door, is another large room (25). It is probably 19th century, but does not appear in an 1815 sketch by John Carter. At one time there was a fireplace in the W. wall with a tall chimney, still clearly visible outside.

Early in the 20th century (c.1907) the fireplace was removed and converted to a passage (26) and there was an extension with two circular windows Westwards, forming a passage to the two (once there were three) to the South (27). These rooms formed a single story addition in the 19th century. It is possible, of course, that they incorporated part of a Vanbrugh outbuilding - one can only guess.

The cellars can be entered by some backstairs, very likely Victorian; but the main entrance is down six steps next to the front porch. On the left as you pass beneath the arch, is a deep alcove which may have been a water store.

The cellars, with the exception of the Northern and Southern extremities, lie beneath Vanbrugh's Castle and so are his work. There is still abundant evidence that this was the hub of domestic activity even in late Victorian times. As we enter the cellars we see ahead of us and to the right (East) two bays with various alcoves, a wine cellar and a little square room at the base of the Eastern tower. The passage runs Westwards and contains the piece of vaulted ceiling already mentioned. A spiral (28) staircase (now blocked at ground level) runs up the round tower to the top floor.

On the N. of this passage is a room which now contains the domestic and central heating apparatus. It includes the base of the semi-circular tower, blossoming here into a circular room.

Further along the passage there is another little square room at the base of the West tower. A room opposite this was evidently devoted to the culinary arts at one time.

All the cellars on the North have numerous recesses which must have been useful as shelves. The room on the extreme N. (at present a woodwork shop) is underneath the Library and contemporary with it. The S. extreme (passage & backstairs) belong to the 19th century.

In the Castle garden there is a circular lawn, on which stood a well with a slender tower at its head with a round window at the top. This was demolished a long time ago, and the position of the well is marked by a rough place on the lawn near the stump of the massive oak which once grew in ths centre of the lawn.

We rediscovered this well a few years ago. It had been buried by placing a board across its mouth and inches of soil. This collapsed when a gardener stuck his spade to raise the turf. Happily nobody was hurt. Soon after reopening I tested a sample of water from this well. It was quite sterile. Later I managed to descend the well although the entrance was so narrow. Some ten feet down on the SW side was a small chamber which may have contained pumping apparatus. I noticed that the top originally had a circular opening about one foot in diameter. It appeared to have been closed in the same manner as the well, and so may collapse one day. Little interest was shown in this well, and so it has been filled with rubbish. Odd to find a well on top of hill.

On the West wall there is a small building recently erected to house an oil storage tank to fuel the heating apparatus.

South of the Castle are the buildings which house the Science Laboratories, the Workshop and the Changing Rooms. In my introduction I mentioned these as modified parts of Vanbrugh's stables. Looking at them from the lawn you can see the tower and the wide arch that has been filled in. There was once another of these arches reaching towards the gate.

South of these old stables there used to be a small yard with a watchtower in it. In 1969 it was enclosed and given a roof to convert it into a Biology Laboratory. It is a delightful room of irregular shape. There is only one right angle between its walls. This means that if you change the position of your chair, you have an entirely fresh aspect: in other words, you could hardly get bored in this room - the marriage of 18th & 20th centuries has been a success here. Outside this room on the South wall of the old stables can be seen three extra large bricks. They are just below the level of the 1969 roof - I wonder what they mean! The South wall seems to be original. In it there is a bricked up entrance. From the road it is 8'6" high, whilst it is only 3'9" inside, A great deal of rubble etc has been left here - some of it from the building of the classroom block. Even so, the level within may have been higher - I wonder whether any steps are buried there.

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The sunken garden to the West contains a doorway to Maze Hill, another turret, capped by a copper cone, and signs that there were once lean-to type buildings on the garden's S. wall. There are scattered signs of former glories - stone steps leading down to a small wilderness and brickwork that may be foundations of an outbuilding.

Around the property in general there are various underground tunnels. The best known ones are under the lawn to the East of the Castle. So far as I can tell from old pupils who have explored them against school rules and common sense, the passages are arched, damp and becoming dangerous. Under the lawn there is a sort of crossroads of tunnels. The roofs are low, and in some places progress can only be made by wriggling forward - I am told that wriggling backwards is difficult. Although these passages are fascinating, they are now very unsafe - I for one, would not wish to be buried alive!

45 years of girls' schools, and 55 years of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund's school for boys - quite the longest unchanged residents of the Castle!

Interesting people who have lived here besides Sir John Vanbrugh have included:

  • The Second Duke of Richmond - soldier, statesman and sportsman - an early patron of cricket (c1726 - 1743).
  • John Holmes - High Baily of Southwark (1833/7)
  • Laurence Holker Potts, MD(Aberdeen) — Designer and maker of appliances to help those with spinal diseases, & later an inventor in engineering (Dict. Nat. Biob.). Mrs Potts took in young ladies, thus starting a line of girls' schools that ended in 1883, (1838/46).